The Savage Truth

On his very first play from scrimmage, Baltimore showed Houston quarterback Tom Savage the respect they had for his passing attack by sinking safety Tony Jefferson down to the line of scrimmage, creating an eight-man front.

Our first stop on what I will call “back-up quarterback week” is Houston, where Savage was making his fourth consecutive start in place of injured Deshaun Watson.  The week before, in just his second career win (31-21 against Arizona), Savage reached season-highs in pass completions (22) and passing yards (230).  He also set career bests in completion percentage (68.75), touchdown passes (2) and passer rating (97.1).  It was the first time in his NFL career that he was over 90 in rating points.

But as far as Baltimore was concerned, he was just Tom Savage whose best passing efforts should prove no significant challenge to the Raven’s second-ranked pass defense.

The Results

By game’s end, that would prove to be the case.  Houston would end up with only 16 points, and Baltimore would stay in the thick of the playoff hunt with a 23-16 victory (gamebook).  Along the way, Savage would toss two bad interceptions (against no touchdown passes), and turn the ball over a third time on a strip sack.  He would finish the game with a less-than-mediocre 57.5 rating.

Taken as a whole, Tom’s Monday evening looked like the typical evening endured by most back-up quarterbacks across all of the NFL.  Tom had many nice moments Monday night.  He completed 13 of 20 in the first half, and finished the night as the first quarterback this season to surpass 250 passing yards against the Raven defense.  Along the way, Savage showed a better touch on the deep pass than his opponent for the evening – the Raven’s Joe Flacco.

On his first drive he found Bruce Ellington over the middle for 29 yards, and drew a 19-yard pass interference penalty on a well-thrown long toss down the left side.  Those would lead to the only touchdown the Texans would score on the evening.

He hit DeAndre Hopkins over the deep middle in the second quarter for a 34-yard gain that set up a field goal.  Another well-thrown deep pass to Hopkins in the fourth (DeAndre would finish the night with 125 yards on 7 catches) would set up their final field goal of the night.  He also made many solid reads in the short passing game, throwing the ball for most of the night with good anticipation and excellent touch.

But, in the end, the mistakes and the missed chances in the red zone (he was 3 for 7 for negative 3 yards in the red zone) overcame any improvements and saddled Houston with its third loss in the four games that Savage has started in Watson’s absence.

Savage v Watson

In the five previous games that Deshaun had started, Houston had averaged 39 points, 420.6 yards and just 1.6 turnovers per game.  In the four games since, they have averaged 17 points, 307.8 yards and 2.5 turnovers.

Savage is an earnest laborer, but his talents are fairly marginal.  He doesn’t have a powerful arm, and doesn’t run a dynamic downfield passing game.  When your game is the controlled passing game, you don’t have the luxury of making mistakes.  Tom has thrown 5 interceptions over the last three games, and has lost seven fumbles on the season – even though he has played only 4.5 games.  This might be the best opportunity Tom will ever get to prove himself as a starting NFL quarterback.  So far, things could be going better.

Focus on the Run

It should also be noted that Savage’s opportunities were enhanced by Baltimore’s focus on the Houston running game.  This is another big change in the Houston offense in Watson’s absence.  In the last five games that Deshaun started, Houston averaged 141.4 rushing yards per game.  When they took the field for Watson’s last game, they carried the third-ranked running game in the NFL – and then added 142 more against a fine Seattle defense.

In the four games since, Houston has averaged only 95.8 rushing yards per game – falling now to seventh in the league.

Meanwhile, Baltimore keeps getting better and better against the run.  The truth is never as simple as the absence of one defender.  Nonetheless, during a five-game stretch that coincided with defensive tackle Brandon Williams‘ absence from the lineup, Baltimore was pounded to the tune of 169.4 rush yards per game.  In the last four games – all with Williams back in the lineup – the Ravens have allowed just 64.25 yards per game.  This includes holding the formerly potent Texans offense to just 66 rushing yards and just 2.6 yards per rush.

Breaking with the most recent trend toward smaller defensive lineman, the three Ravens who controlled the middle last night are sort of throw-backs to the recent era of large defensive tackles that muddle the middle of the line of scrimmage and allow their linebackers to flow to the play.  And Baltimore’s three big guys enjoyed quite a night.  Williams (335 pounds – listed), Michael Pierce (339) and Willie Henry (310) pushed around the middle of Houston’s line in a way the Texans haven’t been handled all season.  Houston center Nick Martin spent almost as much time in the Texans’ backfield as his quarterback.

This, too, takes its toll on the back-up quarterback.  With no effective running game to relieve the pressure, it becomes that much more difficult to cope with a defense that came into the game holding opposing passers to a 66.9 rating.

Wither Houston?

The Texans’post-game press conference was pretty grim – as you might expect.  The difference between the 5-6 record they might have had with the win and the 4-7 that they now hold is very nearly the difference between NFL life and death.  Savage came to the podium, but didn’t stay long enough to even hear – much less answer – one question.  And try as he might, even the valiant Bill O’Brien couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice.

O’Brien carries on the very best of old-school traditions.  Lining up against some of football’s best teams with a shadow of the team that he thought he would have, Bill persistently shoulders the blame for all of his team’s shortcomings.  He will never point to the long list of missing players, nor will he turn to any other excuse.  He understands that football will not weep for you.  In the emotionally savage realm that is the football season, you line up and play – and the injuries, however and whenever they come – can only be viewed as opportunities for someone else.

Houston’s season won’t get any softer.  Still ahead are games against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.  After two straight division titles, a 2017 playoff berth is all but completely out of the picture.  This will almost certainly be a year of growth through adversity for the Texans.  But Bill and his team understand this important fact:

The minute that you allow yourself to feel sorry for yourself – the minute that it becomes OK to lose a game because of your injuries – you have lost a critical emotional discipline that all winning organizations carefully cultivate.  All organizations that sustain a championship culture take absolute personal responsibility for their results.  The words “if only” are never heard among teams like New England, Pittsburgh, and the other organizations with championship pedigrees.  You won’t hear them in Houston either.

The Texans will rise from this season mentally stronger.  With O’Brien at the helm, they are in good hands.

And as for Baltimore

The Ravens survived at home against Houston.  Now 6-5, Baltimore’s playoff chances are as good as any of the teams in the wild-card scrum.  This is not a great team, by any means.  Their offense mysteriously sits thirty-first out of thirty-two teams, and they are clearly surviving because of excellent special teams and a defense that ranks seventh-best in yards and second-best in points allowed.

Concerning about the Ravens is their inability to beat any teams with winning records.  They have losses to Jacksonville (44-7 in Week Three), Pittsburgh (26-9 in Week Four), Minnesota (24-16 in Week Seven) and Tennessee (23-20 in Week Nine).  Anyone watching this team would have strong doubts that they could win a critical game against a quality opponent.

Fortunately for them, they won’t need to do that until the playoffs.  Their remaining schedule has an upcoming home game against a dangerous but flawed Detroit team, and a difficult road matchup against Pittsburgh.  After that, they are on the road against winless Cleveland, and then they finish with home games against struggling franchises in Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

Of the teams in the hunt, they may have the easiest route.

Trending Up in Buffalo

Sitting just on the outside of the playoff hunt, Buffalo earned a critical road victory against a Kansas City team that I didn’t think they would beat.  This was a “found” win.  Now 6-5 instead of the 5-6 that I expected, Buffalo – like Baltimore – can see a clearing path to the playoffs.  They still have two challenging games against the Patriots, but the rest of the schedule is Indianapolis and Miami twice.

If Buffalo moves into the playoff picture, then probably falling out will be the Tennessee Titans.  At 7-4, the Titans are presently leading the AFC South (on the strength of an earlier win against also 7-4 Jacksonville).

Tennessee will conclude with a fairly challenging schedule.  They have this same Houston team up next week, followed by two road games (albeit against Arizona and San Francisco).  They then finish up at home against the Rams and Jaguars.  This is a team that I could easily see fading down the stretch.

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